To its discredit, the Kansas Board of Regents seems unlikely to give up its insistence that university leaders be able to fire faculty or staff members for tweets or Facebook posts “contrary to the best interests of the employer” or that impair “discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” among other potential offenses.
Adding a lot of language to the social media policy about how the Board of Regents values First Amendment rights and “strongly supports principles of academic freedom,” as a Wednesday meeting agenda item calls for, won’t warm up the chilling effect of the wording about giving university administrators the authority to use “progressive discipline measures” including suspension, dismissal and termination for “improper use of social media.”
By holding out for the power to fire over a tweet or Facebook comment, the regents also will discount the input of a faculty-staff working group. That panel preferred each university adopt guidelines encouraging responsible use of social media and reminding employees “that their authorship of content on social media may violate existing law or policy.”
Keeping the punitive wording also will discount the dozens of public comments submitted to the board opposing it and warning of its harmful effects on higher education in the state.
“Lauding academic freedom with one hand and taking it away with the other hand is simply disingenuous,” wrote someone from Kansas State University (among those whose names were redacted).
“This chilling effect on academic speech will cost Kansas universities professional standing and will result in the loss of both the best faculty members and of superior students,” said one from Wichita State University.
“It is a punitive, ill-advised policy that attempts to muzzle the very people you employ to think and to express their thoughts,” wrote someone from Pittsburg State University.
Several mentioned the anti-NRA tweet by University of Kansas journalism professor David Guth that led to calls for his firing and for a statewide social media policy.
“Professor Guth’s comments that catalyzed this policy change were offensive and inappropriate,” wrote Scott A. Schulte, an adjunct lecturer in KU’s Urban Planning Program. “But eliminating free speech and academic freedom protections is not the answer. The First Amendment protects even unpopular and offensive speech. Democracy and academia cannot survive without the freedom to explore ideas and follow data where it leads. On the other hand, Kansas can survive occasionally offensive and inappropriate speech.”
The regents should heed such advice and opt for a policy more advisory than punitive. Regrettably, no revision will fix the damage already done to the board’s and state’s commitment to academic freedom by the policy’s adoption in the first place.